In honor of the 90th birthday of Beekman Cannon, former professor of music at Yale and erstwhile master of Jonathan Edwards College, JE mounted a most unusual but utterly unforgettable performance of Henry Purcell’s 1684 opera “Dido and Aeneas” on Thursday night. The work was presented in two versions, each conceived differently from a musical as well as a directorial standpoint.

Michael Lewanski ’01 was flown back from Atlanta to conduct an orchestra of strings played with baroque bows, augmented by a large continuo ensemble of guitar, theorbo, viola da gamba, harpsichord and double bass. It was a feat in itself to retrain the players in the ways of 17th-century performance practice, a task undertaken largely by professional Baroque violinist Robert Mealy, yet the uniformly bright and transparent sound that emerged was a virtual miracle.

Occasional problems of coordination are inevitable in a pickup ensemble with limited rehearsal time, but minor slips did nothing to counteract Lewanski’s beautiful conducting. Under his baton the music was Romantic in spirit, responsive to the high drama of Nahum Tate’s libretto, but also thoroughly informed by the lean, taut sound Purcell envisioned.

The pathos-filled choral conclusion to the first version led immediately, almost joltingly, to the jaunty overture heralding the beginning of the second. The differences between the two performances in purely musical terms were great enough that Lewanski prepared a separate score for each. In the latter version, fast tempos were accelerated and slow ones drawn out further, creating an air of exaggerated drama that suited the increasingly dreamlike action transpiring on the stage. Some repeats were omitted; some were included for the first time.

The continuo instruments played different roles in the second, phrasings and nuances were continually new, and clashes — such as a held A from Aeneas bleeding over into a B-flat major passage for the strings — began to infiltrate the score. Finally, Lewanski’s reaction to Purcell’s call for “horrid music” at a crucial dramatic juncture changes from understated harpsichord flailing in the first version, to a thoroughly un-idiomatic but delightful glissando passage for full orchestra worthy of Iannis Xenakis in the second.

Much of the vocal cast changed as well, although Kimberly DeQuattro ’03 was an astoundingly assured Dido in both versions. The dark, veiled Aeneas of Chris Herbert ’02 was replaced by the bright confidence of David Weaver ’02; both singers brought impeccable pitch and dramatic insight to a complicated role.

Grace Kuckro ’03 brought a disturbingly in-your-face but oddly appropriate sexuality to the role of the Sorceress, and both Lina Perkins GRD ’05 and Allison Ewoldt ’03 brought beautiful voices and confident musicality to the role of Belinda. In fact, the entire cast of soloists was inspired, and though the diction of the chorus in its supporting rule was sometimes mushy, their tonal control, expressive involvement and virtuosic flexibility were never in doubt.

In both versions, musical differences aside, this “Dido and Aeneas” was one of the best musical performances to emerge at Yale in quite some time. Lewanski is an artist of rare caliber, a brilliant young conductor who sets a lofty standard indeed for undergraduate Yale performers. And director Paul Koch ’01, also a recent Yale graduate, displayed a playful sense of invention and novelty that never compromised the dramatic integrity of an opera over three centuries old. Even the lavishly produced program and the performance space (the First and Summerfield United Methodist Church, at the corner of College and Elm Streets) were extraordinary. This was a truly inspired evening.